• Cultureyes Consultants

Identity or convenience? Thoughts of a person with a complicated name

My parents gave me a beautiful name: Nadezhda.

When I refer to beautiful, it’s not to boast their particularly good taste. Nadezhda is a name with a meaning. It means hope in Russian. I am proud to carry a name with such a positive load. In addition, I find the sound of it deep and strong, and I associate depth and strength with my personality.

It was very convenient to be named Nadezhda in the 1990s in Russia: it wasn’t a popular name in my generation. It was more of my grandmother’s era name. One of my grandmothers was called Nadezhda, and so was called Lenin’s spouse, which probably explained the name's popularity in Soviet times. However, Nadezhda didn’t sound outdated, it was just uncommon. So I was the only Nadezhda in my school class, one of the rare Nadezhdas at the university and generally speaking, I had an advantage of not being confused with anyone in the crowd of Olgas, Natashas and Nastyas. My name made me feel unique.

At the age of 21, I came to France and this is where the difficulties began. French people would attempt to pronounce my name but would choke in fear approximately at the 2nd syllable, overwhelmed by the amount of consonants in the middle of the name. ZHD… Excusez-moi, je ne comprends pas*...

*Sorry, I don't understand

Those who were not so familiar with foreign names would choose to skip the scary 3-letter combination all together and would shout hello!!! staring at me, hoping that I would understand that they were talking to me. Some creative minds would ‘lighten’ the sound ZH to Z and continue living in happy ignorance. Only a bunch of adventurers would admit that they were embarrassed to écorcher* , my name but they were willing to learn the ‘proper’ pronunciation (learn how to pronounce the sound ZH here).

*Literally: to skin; here: to mispronounce

At the beginning I took this situation as a serious educational mission and I explained to every courageous person the intricacies of the Russian sounds. After a few years, someone came up with an idea to explain my name as a combination of Nadège, which is an old French name, and a ‘da’, meaning yes in Russian. Nadège + Da! Relatable, with a cultural hint, easy to memorize - this explanation was perfect and served me more than once.

Some people also recommended that I shorten my name to a simpler version, or use a nickname instead.

I’m not a fan of nicknames, I honestly don’t understand the idea. Why would you call someone something else, if they already have a name? Unless their own name doesn’t sound appealing, in which case I can understand the swap. I guess I’m not particularly fond of nicknames because I’ve always loved my name and I only wanted to be called this way.

A short version of Nadezhda exists in Russian, it’s Nadya (or Nadia). However using it was problematic to me for 2 reasons:

  1. Whereas Nadezhda is an ‘official’ version of my name, written in all the official documents, it is also a name which people would use in formal circumstances, for example, in a professional environment. Using this version of the name means showing more respect and outlining initial distance between people who don’t know each other. In Russian language, we address people using VY (=you, official, formal) and TY (=you, informal, friendly). If I accepted to be called Nadya straight away it would almost feel like I allowed any random stranger to tap me on the shoulder when we first met. In my ‘coconut’ culture it’s simply unacceptable (read more about ‘peach’ vs. ‘coconut’ cultures here to see what I mean)

  2. Nadia is a popular Arabic name, and the French would usually assume I was Moroccan. Nothing wrong with being Moroccan, but I was so proud of the cultural identity of my Russian name. In this sense, being called Nadia made me ‘lose’ my identity which I perceived as somewhat unique up until this point.

I didn’t make any choice at this point and people continued calling me whatever they felt the most comfortable with.

A few years later I moved to the UK. Brits showed more successful attempts in pronouncing my name, which reassured me. Was it because there generally were more foreigners in the country, therefore, it formed a habit of reading and pronouncing complex letter combinations? Or perhaps, culturally people are less fearful of making mistakes, so they try new things without self-judgement?

Of course I had the pleasure of discovering new name variants like NadezhKa, NadezhNa, Nadezdha, Nadezhada, Nedezdha… to name a few. Sometimes it puzzled me, but in the majority of cases it made me laugh.

When I was getting started with my intercultural business, the name question came up again and I was suggested to change my name to Nadya, for the ease of my international audience. I have considered it, I hesitated a lot… and I kept Nadezhda for LinkedIn and for the email communication. I call myself Nadya when I participate in zoom meetings though. Can I consider that identity and convenience met halfway?

Which solution would you choose if you were in my position? To stick to your original name, maintain your identity? Or to focus on the people around you being at ease when speaking to you? If you have a long or unusual name yourself, I would love to hear your story.

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